The case regards Wisconsin but Illinois will provide a more startling change should the court rule against the practice.
The US supreme court on Monday agreed to decide whether electoral maps drawn deliberately to favor a particular political party are acceptable under the constitution, in a case that could have huge consequences for future US elections.
The justices will take up Wisconsin’s appeal of a lower court ruling that said state Republican lawmakers had violated the constitution when they created legislative districts with the aim of hobbling Democrats. The case will be one of the biggest heard in the supreme court term that begins in October.
Last November, federal judges in Madison ruled 2-1 that the Republican-led Wisconsin legislature’s redrawing of legislative districts in 2011 amounted to “an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander”, a manipulation of electoral boundaries for unfair political advantage.
The judges said the redrawing violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law and free speech by undercutting the ability of Democratic voters to turn their votes into seats in the Wisconsin state legislature.
The court ordered a redrawing of political districts be in place by 1 November 2017, in time for the next state election in Wisconsin, in 2018.
The supreme court has been willing to invalidate state electoral maps on the grounds of racial discrimination, as it did on 22 May, when it found Republican legislators in North Carolina had drawn two districts to diminish the statewide political clout of black voters.
But the justices have not thrown out state electoral maps drawn simply to give one party an advantage over another.
A supreme court ruling faulting the Wisconsin redistricting plan could have far-reaching consequences for the redrawing of electoral districts that is due after the 2020 US census. State and federal legislative district boundaries are reconfigured every decade after the census, so each holds about same number of people.
“Wisconsin’s gerrymander was one of the most aggressive of the decade, locking in a large and implausibly stable majority for Republicans in what is otherwise a battleground state,” said Brennan Center redistricting expert Thomas Wolf.
Under the Wisconsin redistricting plan, Republicans were able to amplify their voting power, gaining more seats than their percentage of the statewide vote would suggest. For example, in 2012, the Republican party received about 49% of the vote but won 60 of 99 seats in the state assembly. In 2014, the party garnered 52% of the vote and 63 assembly seats.
Wisconsin the Worst?
When it comes to corruption, think Illinois. It’s what we do best.
Democrats hold a majority in both the Illinois House and Senate. Taxes would be way higher and Illinois would have a budget were it not for a few blue-dog fiscal conservative Democrats. In the 2016 election Democrats lost their supermajority.
Gerrymandering at its Finest
The 4th Congressional District of Illinois includes part of Cook County, and has been represented by Democrat Luis Gutiérrez since January 1993. It was featured by The Economist as one of the most strangely drawn and gerrymandered congressional districts in the country and has been nicknamed “earmuffs” due to its shape. It was created to pack two majority Hispanic parts of Chicago into one district, thereby creating a majority Hispanic district.
This district covers two strips running east-west across the city of Chicago, Illinois, on the west side continuing into smaller portions of some suburban areas in Cook County, surrounding Illinois’ 7th congressional district. The northern portion is largely Puerto Rican, while the southern portion is heavily Mexican-American. The two sections are on opposite sides of the city and are only connected by a piece of Interstate 294 to the west; the highway is in the district while the surrounding areas are not. It is the smallest congressional district in area outside of New York City and San Francisco.
When is Gerrymandering Unconstitutional?
Ronald Reagan was president when Michael Madigan, a Democrat, became speaker of the Illinois House in 1983. Reagan served two terms and died in 2004, and his name adorns schools, roads, parks and an airport. A generation has passed since he left the White House.
And Madigan? He is still speaker, and has been for all but two years since he started. He appears to be as permanent a feature of the Illinois landscape as the Mississippi River.
Illinois is a blue state, voting Democratic in the past seven presidential elections. But the Democratic Party’s control of the state House is not the simple result of its ability to satisfy the citizenry. Democrats have also had the help of district lines drawn to help them at the expense of Republicans.
In 2014, Democrats got 50.5 percent of the vote and 60 percent of the seats. This year, Madigan’s party again won 60 percent of the races.
That’s why Illinois Republicans may side with Wisconsin Democrats on one issue: partisan gerrymandering. On Nov. 21, a federal district court struck down Wisconsin’s legislative map on the ground that it unfairly favors Republicans, who dominate the Legislature. It had been more than three decades since a federal court invalidated a reapportionment plan for partisan bias.
The Supreme Court ultimately overruled that decision, upholding an Indiana redistricting plan. But the justices affirmed that a gerrymander could be so biased toward one party as to violate the Constitution. The district court said the Wisconsin plan fits the bill.
Republicans captured the Wisconsin Legislature in 2010, just in time for the decennial reapportionment. They made the most of the opportunity. In 2012, GOP candidates got 48.6 percent of the statewide vote — but 60 of the 99 seats in the lower house, the Assembly. In 2014, they got 52 percent of the vote and 63 seats.
A scholar they had asked to analyze the plan before its adoption said Democrats would need at least 54 percent of the statewide ballots to regain control of the Assembly. It was a recipe for Republican control in good times and bad.
In 1986, the Supreme Court noted that when legislators are entrusted with redistricting, the results are bound to have a partisan tilt. But it concluded there is a limit to what is permissible. “Unconstitutional discrimination occurs,” it said, “when the electoral system is arranged in a manner that will consistently degrade a voter’s or a group of voters’ influence on the political process as a whole.”
Wisconsin Republicans insist they have a natural advantage: Democrats are concentrated in cities, limiting the number of districts in which they enjoy majority strength, while Republicans are more scattered.
But the federal court said these facts don’t explain the GOP’s formidable edge. It is instead the product of efforts to dilute the votes of Democrats by “packing” large numbers into a few districts, where they can’t lose, and “cracking” the rest into many more districts, where they can’t win.
What they refer to as the “efficiency gap” is enough to lock in GOP control in Madison for a full decade under almost any realistic conditions. The court found that the reapportionment violates the First and 14th amendments by intentionally hobbling Democratic voters. Every affected citizen, it said, is “an unequal participant in the decisions of the body politic.”
Illinois Republicans know how that works. For the moment, partisan gerrymandering favors the GOP because it holds power in more states. But Republicans have been its victims just as often as Democrats — and, if the Supreme Court doesn’t curb the practice, will be again.
In the end, partisan gerrymandering is not really aimed at frustrating the party that is out of power. It’s aimed at foiling voters who might want to remove politicians from office. As Michael Madigan can attest, it really works.
I have no idea how the Supreme Court will rule, but I will be happy if it ends Gerrymandering.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock